Astropreneurs sat down with Leon Alkalai, manager of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Blue Sky Think Tank for strategic planning and founder of AstroLabs, to learn more about his entrepreneurial journey.
Dr. Leon Alkalai began working at JPL after graduating from University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) with a PhD in computer science. He started off in the field of high-performance computing for deep space missions, fulfilling a childhood fantasy of building systems like HAL from the sci-fi 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Former JPL director, Charles Elachi, used to say that JPL is a collection of entrepreneurs. The organization has certainly encouraged my entrepreneurial spirit,” says Dr Alkalai. He began by writing proposals for grants and won small-scale funding early on. “Going through the mission proposal process is very entrepreneurial,” says Leon. “You need to convince NASA to give you millions of dollars. That means you need to prove your proposal meets the defined objectives, is low cost-risk, has the right leadership and team in place, and the overall mission risk has been assessed as low. Just like applying for early stage funding for VCs, you must convince someone who might not be a technical expert in your specific field that your proposal is credible and worth investing in.”
In 2005, Leon was assigned the role of a Capture Lead for a mission to the Moon, called GRAIL, which won the NASA Discovery Program award for solar system exploration in 2007. This mission successfully launched in 2011 under budget and on schedule. That same year, Leon became the Capture Lead and Proposal Manager for the Mars Insight mission, JPL’s most recent and eighth successful landed spacecraft on the red planet. Insight, another Discovery class mission comes with a budgetary cap of $500m for the mission system, excluding the launch vehicle and operations. “NASA’s Discovery Program missions are for the entire solar system, but Mars has its own dedicated line in the budget. So why would the Discovery program fund a mission to Mars that could be funded from its own program? At first, I wasn’t sure we could convince NASA, but then we decided to change our approach. With this mission, we are learning about the rest of the solar system from the interior of Mars. It’s a mission to Mars, sure, but it’s about the early formation and history of our Solar System.”
In 2014, Dr Alkalai began working with his colleague at JPL, Dr. Adrian Ponce, who had developed some patents resulting from planetary protection research. He co-led the company as Co-CEO and was specifically responsible for the fundraising, taking it from pre-seed to a successful series B round. He sees this as his pilot company that demonstrated he could translate his expertise from leading mission proposals into the commercial space entrepreneurial world.
In 2016, Dr Alkalai began another startup in addition to his day job, with support from his management and sign-off from JPL’s Ethics Office. AstroLabs began as a consulting service for the commercial space industry and, using his experience at JPL, Dr Alkalai advised venture capital firms on the viability of high-tech space companies. He developed a network within the financing scene and, through word-of-mouth, built a portfolio of clients. “The challenge that VC’s have”, says Dr Alkalai, “is that they see thousands of pitches for investment and every pitch they see is so polished. They have no way to differentiate between the technical viability of two companies looking to provide similar services. There is a mismatch between scientists that want to do science but need business acumen and the VCs that might lack the technical expertise, but have the entrepreneurial intuition. That is where I come in.” Dr Alkalai saw an opportunity to bridge this gap and wants AstroLabs to be a place for technical experts and VCs to connect. AstroLabs’ vision is to develop a technical incubation program that can use the expertise of colleagues at JPL and Caltech that vets space companies and give VCs confidence to invest in credible projects. “Pasadena [home of JPL and Caltech] has the greatest density of rocket scientists per capita, says Dr Alkalai. “It is an absolute goldmine of opportunities and ideas, I want to bring their innovation to the commercial space industry”.
Quick Fire Questions with Dr. Alkalai
Astropreneurs: How do you balance your job at JPL with working for AstroLabs?
Leon Alkalai: It’s a big undertaking, but I take care to keep the work separate. I’ve been told by others that I’m very well organized and that may be true! I also don’t get into things lightly, but if I do, I commit wholeheartedly.
Astropreneurs: How has the JPL environment influenced AstroLabs?
Leon Alkalai: The experience and training in proposal writing really honed by skills and developed my drive to win.
Astropreneurs: What resources have you found helpful in your startup journey?
Leon Alkalai: The JPL culture is a precious commodity that is not common outside. That is: “never promise more than you can deliver, and always deliver more than you promise.” I try and live by this standard. Often, this may seem very conservative, but, it serves me well, as my word is bankable. Trust is a currency that is precious, and I love working with investors who appreciate this trait.
Astropreneurs: Any parting advice for budding space entrepreneurs?
Leon Alkalai: I truly believe that we are at the dawn of a space revolution of a scale unseen and unimagined before. Humanity is going to expand from LEO to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Space commerce, space tourism, resource mining, and benefits to humanity are upon us in a significant way. This is a good time to be an entrepreneur in space.
Posted by Harriet Brettle